Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Paranoia grows over Google's power

Most people missed the announcement about how Google wants to burrow inside your brain and capture your most intimate thoughts. That's because it never happened.

But Google, the world leader in Web search services, is the focus of mounting paranoia over the scope of its powers as it expands into new advertising formats from online video to radio and

TV, while creating dozens of new Internet services.
True, the Silicon Valley company has millions of people telling it daily what's apparently on their minds via simple Web searches, generating mountains of information about consumer behavior.

The company uses this information to make money by selling advertisements, but people who are used to browsing anonymously around stores or channel-hopping on TV find it unnerving to realize that in a digital world, their every move is recorded.

As people spend more time online and realize just how much information Google is collecting about their habits and interests, the fear develops that true or false revelations of the most personal, embarrassing or even intrusive kind are no more than a Web search away.

The company mission statement reads: "Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" and, famously, "You can make money without doing evil."

With Google search a fact of life, some suggest our notions of privacy need to move with the times.

"We are in transition in our idea of privacy and we are still discovering ways to make sense of the implicit traces people leave behind," writes David Weinberger in a new book, "Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder."

Inconvenient truths
Nicole Wong, the Google attorney who oversees a team of lawyers who consider privacy and other policy issues that go into the making of each product, says she isn't surprised people are anxious or concerned about these innovations.

"The pace of change in technology is so much faster now," Wong said. "Instead of a generation, or even years, we are seeing breakthrough technologies emerging in the space of months." Social norms have a hard time keeping pace.

Privacy policy activists complain Google's $3.1 billion plan to acquire DoubleClick, which connects buyers and sellers of online advertising, would double the number of Internet users on which Google keeps tabs to upward of 1 billion.

For several years now, friends, enemies and first-time daters have had to face up to the inconvenient truths that turn up with a little Web snooping -- dubbed Google-stalking.
Just by searching on Google for the names of ex-lovers, schoolmates, or people they have just met, they can find out more about them than they bargained for.

Other services which stir concerns Google may know too much about us: its e-mail service, Gmail, which puts advertisements up alongside mails people receive based on a scan of their contents; Google Desktop, which helps users search the local contents of computers; and Google Earth -- satellite maps which go down to street level. Another map feature has produced random surveillance-like shots of individuals going about their days.

Also last month, Google took a big step to unify its different categories of Internet search -- for images, news, books, Web sites, local information, video -- in one service.
Unified Search offers no information not already available on Google, but by putting it all in one place, it is turning up sometimes disconcerting links between previously unconnected types of data.

And Google is testing various forms of personalized Web search, including Web History, a feature that allows individual users to look back at a chronological history of their search activity over several years.

Users learn what predictable creatures they are -- what good and bad habits they have -- when their entire Web search record is revealed, stretching back days, months, even years.
By offering a digital record of users' daily interests, Google is giving those who choose the service an unprecedented level of insight into their own thinking.
Computers have begun to play the confessional role once reserved for the local priest, or psychotherapist.

Rules need changing
Modern privacy fears, and legal thinking on the topic, date back to the invention of aggressive flashbulb photography and the electronic distribution of tabloid news more than 100 years ago, historians say.

Every major privacy panic since then has occurred against a similar backdrop of rapid technology change, and the psychological dislocations that inevitably follow until a new period of social adaptation and understanding evolves.
"A lot of these things are not about Google in particular but we've become the focus of that debate and as a leading company that's an appropriate role for us to play," says Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel.

Google has responded by calling for comprehensive legislation to harmonize laws of various governments, all of which want their say over the World Wide Web. Self-regulation by the Internet industry has not worked, the company says.
"Patchwork regulation is confusing for consumers because they don't know which privacy regulations should apply in different situations," Google attorney Wong says of U.S. privacy laws.

New rules are needed to fend off governments which might try to force companies to divulge customer data, Google argues. It fought off just such a court request by U.S. authorities last year and argues that for the limited purposes it keeps customers' data, it is a reliable custodian.
"Google is working with companies across an array of industries to get baseline privacy legislation that would be much closer to the comprehensive protections in Europe and some other countries," says Wong, whose title is associate general counsel. She also is working on laws with Asian countries.

Google has initiated a plan to limit the amount of time the company stores personal data to no more than two years across its massive collection of hundreds of thousands of computers.
The proposal spurred debate with privacy regulators in the European Union. Google last week agreed to scale back its data retention plans to 18 months.

It argues that everything from spell-checking on its Web search service to anti-fraud protections to government data retention laws won't work over any shorter timeframe.
Rivals have not set time limits on storing personal data.

Users rage against China's 'Great Firewall'

Yang Zhou is no cyberdissident, but recent curbs on his Web surfing habits by China's censors have him fomenting discontent about China's "Great Firewall."

Yang's fury erupted a few days ago when he found he could not browse his friend's holiday snaps on, due to access restrictions by censors after images of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre were posted on the photo-sharing Web site.

"Once you've complained all you can to your friends, what more can you do? What else is there but anger and disillusionment?" Yang said after venting his anger with friends at a hot-pot restaurant in Beijing.

The blocking of Flickr is the latest casualty of China's ongoing battle to control its sprawling Internet. Wikipedia and a raft of other popular Web sites, discussion boards and blogs have already fallen victim to the country's censors.

China employs a complex system of filters and an army of tens of thousands of human monitors to survey the country's 140 million Internet users' surfing habits and surgically clip sensitive content from in front of their eyes.

Its stability-obsessed government says the surveillance machinery, commonly known as the "Great Firewall," is necessary to let Internet users enjoy a "healthy" online environment and build a "harmonious" society.

Yang just thinks it's a pain.

"I just want to look at some photos! What's wrong with that?" said the 24-year-old accountant, typical of millions of young urban-dwelling professionals who are increasingly aware of and fed up with state intrusions into their private life.

Privacy, once regarded with suspicion in pre-reform China, has become a sought-after commodity among China's burgeoning middle class, according to Nicholas Bequelin from Hong Kong-based Human Rights Watch.

"Of course, it's the first thing people seek when they have the economic resources," Bequelin said. "We see this growing in China in the wake of ideas of ownership and property."

Away from cyberspace, the battle for privacy between China's secretive government and its increasingly active citizens has turned violent in recent months.

In Bobai county, in the southern region of Guangxi, hundreds of farmers smashed government offices and burnt cars after local officials imposed punitive fines on residents who had defied family planning laws and had too many children.

The battle for control of China's Internet, however, will remain much more covert than confrontational, according to Liu Bin, an IT consultant with Beijing-based consulting firm BDA.

He believes it will take a long time before the government loosens control over Web content, especially because the Internet-savvy middle class is unlikely to take to the streets -- like the farmers of Bobai county -- over lack of Web access.

"Many educated people feel they can accept the current status quo because it doesn't have much impact on their daily lives ... They have been living with government propaganda for over 1,000 years," Liu said.

Such an attitude grates on Du Dongjin, a 40-year-old IT worker in Shanghai.

Du has decided to sue his Internet service provider, the Shanghai branch of state-owned behemoth China Telecom, who he said had blocked a Web site that had carried financial software he hoped to market.

"If the court authorities aren't influenced and they can hear the case fairly, I will win," Du said.

Most frustrated Web surfers, however, would rather air their grievances in the relatively safe realms of Internet anonymity.

They still have their anonymity because a state push to have China's millions of bloggers register with their real names to ensure they only posted "responsible" Web content was abandoned after an outcry from the Internet industry and due to the impossible task of keeping lists of exploding numbers of users.

"The thirst for information in China is so strong, it is very difficult for the (Communist) Party to stay ahead of the curve," Bequelin explained.

Within days of the blocking of Flickr, links to browser plug-ins and how-to explanations to subvert the filters and see Flickr photos were gleefully posted on blogs and in chat-rooms.

Many posts were preceded by tirades against the censors for "harmonising" Flickr.

One blogger posted an image of a voodoo doll, calling it the Great Firewall and inviting users to -- digitally -- stick pins in it.

Yang said restrictions on Flickr probably wouldn't motivate him to write a blog, much less push him down the road of "potentially dangerous" activism.

But he liked the idea of the Great Firewall voodoo doll.

"Have you got the link? Maybe I'll go stick a pin in it," he said.

Yahoo blasts China on free speech

Story Highlights• Yahoo to China: Free expression should not be punished
• Journalist jailed for sending e-mail about media restrictions
• Yahoo: Companies in China must comply with Chinese law
• Employees could face civil or criminal penalties

China should not punish people for expressing their political views on the Internet, Yahoo Inc. said Monday, a day after the mother of a Chinese reporter announced she was suing the U.S. company for helping officials imprison her son.

Yahoo criticized China in a brief statement that didn't specifically mention the case of jailed journalist Shi Tao, whose mother visited Hong Kong on Sunday. Shi was sentenced to 10 years in 2005 after sending an e-mail about Chinese media restrictions.

The company has acknowledged sharing information about Shi with Chinese authorities.

"Yahoo is dismayed that citizens in China have been imprisoned for expressing their political views on the Internet," the company said in the statement faxed to The Associated Press, which asked Yahoo to comment on Shi's lawsuit.

The Internet company, based in Sunnyvale, California, also said it has told China that it condemns "punishment of any activity internationally recognized as free expression."

However, Yahoo added that companies operating in China must comply with Chinese law or risk having their employees face civil or criminal penalties.

Shi was writing for the financial publication Contemporary Business News when he circulated an e-mail with his notes about a government circular about media restrictions. He was convicted of leaking state secrets.

Shi's legal challenge, filed on May 29 in U.S. District Court, is part of a lawsuit filed earlier by the World Organization for Human Rights USA. The group is suing Yahoo and its subsidiary in Hong Kong. Also named is Inc., a Yahoo partner that runs Yahoo China.

On Sunday in Hong Kong, Shi's mother, Gao Qingsheng, insisted her son was innocent and that the family would press ahead with the legal action.

"I believe my son is innocent. We will fight until the end," she told reporters.

The 61-year-old mother was in South Africa last week to receive the annual Golden Pen of Freedom prize on behalf of her son.

Plaintiffs in the American case also include imprisoned dissident Wang Xiaoning and his wife, Yu Ling.

Wang was sentenced in September 2003 on the charge of "incitement to subvert state power," a vaguely defined statute that the Communist Party frequently uses to punish its political critics.

The Chinese government said Wang distributed pro-democracy writings authored by him and others by e-mail and through Yahoo Groups, an online e-mail community.

Google privacy 'worst on the Web'

Google Inc.'s privacy practices are the worst among the Internet's top destinations, according to a watchdog group seeking to intensify the recent focus on how the online search leader handles personal information about its users.

In a report released Saturday, London-based Privacy International assigned Google its lowest possible grade. The category is reserved for companies with "comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy."

None of the 22 other surveyed companies -- a group that included Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and AOL -- sunk to that level, according to Privacy International.

While a number of other Internet companies have troubling policies, none comes as close to Google to "achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy," Privacy International said in an explanation of its findings.

In a statement from one of its lawyers, Google said it aggressively protects its users' privacy and stands behind its track record. In its most conspicuous defense of user privacy, Google last year successfully fought a U.S. Justice Department subpoena demanding to review millions of search requests.

"We are disappointed with Privacy International's report, which is based on numerous inaccuracies and misunderstandings about our services," said Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel.

"It's a shame that Privacy International decided to publish its report before we had an opportunity to discuss our privacy practices with them."

Privacy International contacted Google earlier this month, but didn't receive a response, said Simon Davies, the group's director.

The scathing report is just the latest strike aimed at Google's privacy practices.

An independent European panel recently opened an inquiry into whether Google's policies abide by Europe's privacy rules.

Meanwhile, three consumer groups in the United States are pressuring the nation's regulators to make Google change some of its privacy policies as part of its proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of online ad service DoubleClick Inc., which also tracks Web surfers' behavior.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is looking into antitrust concerns raised by the DoubleClick deal, but has not indicated if privacy issues will be part of the inquiry.

Hoping to placate its critics, Google has pledged to begin erasing the information about users' search requests within 18 to 24 months.

The company says it stockpiles data to help its search engine better understand its users so it can deliver more relevant results and advertisements.

As Google becomes more knowledgeable about the people relying on its search engine and other free services, management hopes to develop more tools that recommend activities and other pursuits that might appeal to individual users.

Privacy International is particularly troubled by Google's ability to match data gathered by its search engine with information collected from other services such as e-mail, instant messaging and maps.

"Under the microscope, it turns out that Google is doing much more with our data than we ever imagined," Davies said.

Privacy International, which was founded in 1990, said it reached its preliminary findings after spending the past six months reviewing Internet privacy practices with the help of about 30 professors, mostly in the United States and United Kingdom. The group plans to update the report in September.

Seven of the Internet companies and Web sites included in Privacy International's analysis received the second lowest grade of "substantial and comprehensive privacy threats." This group included: Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, Apple Inc.,,,, Microsoft's Windows Live Space and Yahoo.

None of the companies or sites received Privacy International's top grade, but five rated as "generally privacy-aware." They were: BBC, eBay Inc.,,, and

Apple: Safari available to Windows users

• Safari Web browser now available for Windows-based PCs
• Apple CEO gives keynote speech at developer conference
• Safari has about 5 percent of the world's browser market share
• Apple's upcoming iPhone will run Safari

SAN FRANCISCO, California (AP) -- Apple Inc. launched a version of its Safari Web browser for Windows-based PCs on Monday, pitting it against Microsoft Corp.'s dominant Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox.

"What we've got here is the most innovative browser in the world and the most powerful browser in the world," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said during his keynote speech at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference.

Safari, which was released a few years ago for Apple's Macintosh computers, has captured about 5 percent of the world's browser market share with more than 18 million users, Jobs said.

Internet Explorer, which is built into Windows, has a 78 percent share, while Firefox has rapidly climbed to gain about 15 percent of the market, he said. Like the other Web browsers, Safari is available at no charge.

Jobs claimed Safari performs twice as fast as its competitors.

Never one to disappoint his audience, the iconic chief executive -- in his final highlight of his 1 ½-hour speech -- said Apple's upcoming iPhone will run Safari.

That means, Jobs said, that any application designed to run on the Safari browser for Macs also would be fully compatible with the iPhone -- Apple's highly anticipated combination cell phone, iPod and wireless Web browser. The iPhone will be available in the U.S. on June 29.

The move to make Safari available to non-Mac users is not unprecedented: Apple also makes its iPod media players and iTunes Store for Windows. The strategy is aimed in part at drawing more people to its Macintosh computers.

It appears to be paying off. Mac sales have grown significantly over the past two years, pushing its slice of the PC market in the United States from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 4.9 percent in 2006, according to IDC, a market research company.

"Safari is another Trojan horse that introduces an innovation of Apple to the Windows community and entices them to the Mac platform," said Tim Bajarin, an industry analyst at Creative Strategies, a technology consultancy.